Free Ingredients: A Guide to Food Foraging

Most of us were raised to think of food as originating in a pre-packaged box, wrapper or bag. Consequently, there’s something magical about receiving uncultivated food from the earth, a tree or the woods and turning it into a meal.


The food-foraging movement in America seems to be rooted in concrete. Urban communities have led the charge into fields and backyards for our next meal. The movement is geared towards sustainable living, connecting with nature, and reducing waste.

Groups have sprung up across the country offering “wild foraging” guided tours; “underground” markets sell things like nettles and acorn flour; and wild food-themed dinners have become so popular you have to buy tickets. There are also networks of urban foragers who trade in the bounty of backyard fruit trees, or donate their gleanings to local food banks.

Many foraging groups are located in California, which is no surprise considering the state’s activist citizenry and mild climate. But there also are groups in places like Brooklyn, where the idea of picking a fresh peach seems impossible. Who knew so many “wild foods” grew in Prospect Park?

Empowerment is at the core of the food-foraging movement. The opportunity to try it lies literally at your feet. With a little experience, wild and/or urban food foraging may grow on you. There’s tremendous satisfaction in knowing you created a meal out of found ingredients.

Here are six tips for successful wild-food foraging. Remember, your next dinner is just a gleaning away.

1. Do Your Homework

Try a class from a local food-foraging organization or community college to learn everything you can about identifying wild foods. The last thing you want is to poison yourself with your new hobby.

Big cities aren’t the only places offering classes, tours, etc. To find local offerings, Google “food foraging” with your city or town’s name. You also might check with your local Cooperative Extension office.

If you can’t find a local class, books can be a valuable resource. Check out the bibliography at Foraging.com.

2. Be Smart About Location
Obviously, you don’t want to eat anything that may have been exposed to pesticides or pollution. Avoid roadside harvesting and the areas around chemical-using farms. Ask before you pick on private or even public lands. Remember, part of the idea is to promote sustainable living.

3. Where To Find Uncultivated Food

Now that you know which food is edible, take a hike. Check out parks, local farms, ditches,  fields, your own backyard and other green areas.

You also might try posting an ad on Craigslist offering to help local farmers harvest organic produce or weeds.

Alternately, a group of urban foragers may offer to pick apples from an elderly woman’s backyard tree. She can’t do it by herself anymore, so the woman is happy to share her harvest in exchange for having the work done. The foragers also may prune her tree before taking home their free apples.

Check out the Plants For A Future website for more ideas. Once you begin hunting, you’ll be surprised at the places free food can be found.

4. Research Growing Seasons

Like cultivated foods, there’s a season for every harvest. Foods can be plentiful in the wild for short periods, then disappear until next year.

5. Don’t Take It All

If you take the plant with its root, it’ll never again feed you or anyone else. Animals and birds may also depend on the same wild foods.

6. Learn How To Prepare Foods Properly
Again, do your homework. Research each plant. The advice of an experienced forager -- either through classes or networking -- may lead you to tasty discoveries. PFAF.com also provides an excellent database to help you learn more about plant uses for over 20,000 species.

Have you tried foraging? If so, tell us what foods are easiest to find and which ones should be avoided.

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